Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Delayed Gratification ... Gotta Love It

We have a WINNER!
Day four of our 12 Days of Christmas contest is: Nancy January! E-mail me, Nancy, at novelmatters@gmailcom with your snail mail address and I'll get Raising Rain to you.

Five Golden Rings

I'll send Every Good & Perfect Gift and A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown to the person who can find an author's last name in today's clue: Five Golden Rings and name a title by that author -- OR -- submit a book title with one of the words from the clue along with the author's name. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for our 12 Days of Christmas Book Giveaway Contest on our November 23 post. The winner will be announced Thursday afternoon, December 3.
I can't tell you how many times I've said, "Just one more chapter," while reading a really good book, only to get to the end of that chapter, often in the wee hours of the morning, and finding I have to keep reading. Jessica Page Morrell describes such a novel as "unputdownable" (Between the Lines, pg. 37). For an author to write unputdownable fiction she must know how to create tension, and in fiction tension is vital. Like the proper drag on a fishing line, it keeps the reader hooked.
Continuing with the theme of tension that we've been discussing the past few days, Sol Stein defines tension as "delicious moments of anxious uncertainty" (Stein on Writing, pg. 307). "Delicious moments of anxious uncertainty." What a fabulous definition of literary tension! To create such anxious uncertainty, there must be sharp opposition to your protagonist achieving his or her desires. Determine what would most thwart her objective, then give your antagonist the ability to do exactly that. And make sure there's an equal sense of urgency on both sides (Stein on Writing, pg. 83).
James Scott Bell says, "[keep] in mind that worrying the reader is the primary goal of the middle of the book" (Plot & Structure, pg. 84). That's not an easy task when most of us are wired to solve everyone's problems, not prolong them, and the sooner the better. But as novelists that's exactly what we must do. Prolong, delay, frustrate. What a perfect -- and safe -- opportunity for our dark side to have its way. So how do you worry the reader sufficiently through that middle portion of the novel? By "(1) stretching the tension and (2) raising the stakes" (P&S, pg. 85). In order to stretch the tension there must first be a valid source of tension. Unless you're writing suspense, mystery, etc., it doesn't have to be physical danger. Opposing goals work just as well. Once you settle on a source of tension, Bell says you must "slow down. ... As you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue, and description" (P&S, pg. 86) so that tension is created, not only chapter by chapter, but line by line. Plot & Structure is one of my favorite books on writing. I highly recommend you read and reread it as you construct your novels.
In another of my favorite writing manuals, Elizabeth George says you create tension by "creating scenes in which you lay down -- but do not answer! -- dramatic questions. You do this by making sure that if you do answer a dramatic question in a scene as the novel progresses, you've already laid down another" (Write Away, pg. 43) Overlap sources of tension as you weave your story and spread it around indiscriminately among your characters. This not only achieves the goal of stretching the tension, but it creates depth to your story as well, and really gives the reader something to dive into.
For sure, it takes more than unanswered questions to keep a reader turning the page. There must be characters we care about, a plot line that engages, and dynamic dialogue. But one of the key factors is knowing how and for how long to delay gratification. Resist the urge to "fix" everything for a character who's in trouble. Continually frustrate your characters' objectives. Don't tie up each chapter ending in a perfect little bow. As much as possible, keep the line taut. Don't give the reader a place to say, "Ah, at last, a place where I can close the book for a while." No, no, no. Don't give them space even to catch their breath, not till the final scene. In so doing you provide a good read for your audience, but even more, you create for them a memorable reading experience.
What have you read lately that kept you on the line? How did the author achieve that and keep you turning the pages?
Between the Lines, Plot & Structure and Write Away can be found on our Resources page.


Latayne C Scott said...

Great advice, and so timely, Sharon! I am committed to worrying the hair off all my readers in the next (middle) section of the novel I'm writing.



Ariel Allison said...

Very good advice indeed. The novel that came to mind while I was reading is The Time Travelers Wife - a brilliant example of tension, dialogue, character development, and a profound reading "experience."

Oh for a mind to write like that!

Kathleen Popa said...

Ariel, I agree, The Time Travelers Wife was a unique novel with a lot of tension.

Sharon, thank you for this great post. Latayne, here's to bald readers!

Carla Gade said...

Excellent post, Sharon. I'm working on trying to achieve that type of tension and delayed gratification. Some of the best books that I've read had a good balance of moving the story forward while creating more complications. The chapters should always end with more questions than answers, though giving a dose of gratification, enough to keep me curious, not frustrated. That keeps me turning the pages. Surrender the Wind by Rita Gerlach was a good page turner, as was The Frontiersman's Daughter by Laura Frantz.

Anonymous said...

In other words you're trying to create a bunch of sleepless zombies! Clever ploy! What book is doing that to me right now? Doubt if you've heard of's called "Lying on Sunday." Thanks azzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ah....what was I saying? Must have dozed off. Oh yeah, thanks a bunch!